Hannah, Ecuador

Hannah is a junior President’s Scholar majoring in political science in Dedman College and accounting in the Cox School, with a minor in Spanish. In spring 2012, she is in Quito, Ecuador, with BCA and SMU Abroad to study international politics, economic development, and social justice in Latin America.

Bomboli

 I really cannot even begin to say enough great things about the BCA program here. As my study abroad program, this group organizes most of my weekend trips as well as various educational experiences during my time here in Quito. I love that the program directors (Daniel and Marta really are the best) always make a genuine effort to ensure that we get a realistic and oftentimes overlooked view of Ecuador. Our trips focus on environmental issues, indigenous rights, local culture, and Latin American history – things that are vital to truly grasping life on the Equator.

This weekend we traveled to Bomboli, an ecological center about an hour and a half from Quito. This reserve is run by one phenomenal family, and I was continuously amazed by their understanding of the natural environment around them. Our tour began with a trip to some of the nearby waterfalls. Aside from its natural beauty, this water is unique because it is completely pure and free from any sort of treatment, chemicals, or contamination. With this water source and a natural septic system, the family at Bomboli essentially lives off-grid in complete harmony with the environment surrounding their home.

After piling in to three small trucks, we made our way up the mountain to see the family’s home as well as the farm and gardens that surround the property. We were immediately greeted by (at least) eight dogs, and we proceeded to observe the farm’s organic process for making cheese, manjar de leche (kind of like a milky version of caramel that is amazing), and chocolate syrup. Everything is done completely by hand, and the result is an array of products that are incredibly fresh and delicious.

We also got a chance to see some of the wood products made on the property – all of which are created out of recycled materials and natural supplies. Essentially the entire home (and the guest rooms made for volunteer groups who visit to help plant each season) are made by the family, including all the beds, mirrors, and other furniture. It was so humbling to see our guide describing the way he constructed every item with care. I loved the way he talked about his work ….

He repeatedly told our group that you need only three things in life: water, food, and love. It became especially apparent that this man possessed a great amount of wisdom and scientific knowledge as we began our tour of the various plants near his home. He seemed to know every leaf, tree, and flower by name, and he could recite multiple healing abilities of each species. On the property, he grows a wide variety of orchids in a unique and beautiful way. The orchid is one of the most expensive flowers to grow in the US due to the amount of chemicals and supplements we use to enhance growth, but in Bomboli the process is entirely natural. Growth occurs thanks to the symbiotic relationship between the flowers and the moss that is planted alongside the organism – a reminder that we often overlook the simple solutions solely due to a lack of understanding of nature.

The lifestyle in Bomboli is becoming more and more rare in our ever-developing, globalized world. I was refreshed and challenged by the way this family lives, and I couldn’t help but comprehend my serious lack of education in the practicalities of agriculture and forestation. Sure, it’s easy for me to just drive to the local supermarket and purchase whichever product I need, but I am basically clueless about the intricate environmental relationships that create such food and resources.

It was an eye-opening experience, and I am so thankful that places like Bomboli exist to teach and share their story with the rest of the world. We definitely have a lot to learn from them.

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Home

I can’t believe it’s already here, but then again this time of year always seems to sneak up on me: midterms. This past week I took 3 exams, and I have another one coming up next week. My professors are demanding term paper outlines, essays, and presentations – all of which are slightly overwhelming but offer a good reminder that my time here in Ecuador is passing all too quickly.

It’s kind of crazy when I really think about it … this isn’t vacation or a few weeks of traveling abroad. I live here. Yesterday a taxi driver asked me how long I’ve been in Quito, and I almost surprised myself when I responded “two months.” In some ways, the time is flying. I have seen the waterfalls in Cotacachi, purchased crafts in Otavalo, swam with sea lions in the Galapagos, lived on “la finca” in Guaranda, and am about to begin a trip to Bomboli to experience an off-grid community. In the next two months, I will be headed to the rainforests of Tena, the beaches of Canoa, and the historic sights of Cuenca. Sometime during all that exploring I am going to need to find a few hours to study for finals, complete term papers, and maybe even relax in Quito for a bit.

Even though my days here are always new and exciting – full of great experiences and challenges – I have recently found myself missing home more than usual. Maybe it’s just because I am approaching the halfway mark of my semester here, or maybe it’s simply because there are a lot of great things to miss at home. Here are a few of the things I would love to have in my life right now: JR and Natalie (I miss my amazing parents so much), the Chevy (it would seriously make life in this city way easier), the boy (can’t wait til June), First Baptist Church of Ellisville (and Dustin, of course), the fab five, Chuys (and Tex Mex in general), Dr. Pepper, SMU (the fountains, the professors, the pony pride … all of it), accounting classes (especially problem sets and cost accounting with “the good scholar”), visits to the Chi O house, Sonic dates, the English language (I love learning Spanish, but sometimes it gets frustrating), the barn (including all the dogs and cats), Sunday lunches with the Maces/Flowers/all those other incredible people, late night 7-Eleven trips with the alphach, Thursday afternoons at Dedman with a bunch of people who love Jesus, Daniel House (specifically those two incredible women who I was so blessed to live with last semester), country music on the radio, Castlewood park with Squeaky, horses (I would give just about anything to be traveling around to team ropings this weekend with the parents), and roadtrips with lots of Stephen Kellogg music.

While composing that list, however, I started to realize that “home” is not quite as clear as it used to be. For me, home now includes both St. Louis and Dallas – as well as people from all over the planet. I hope that at the end of May I will be able to add Quito to that list … I want to look back on this city as one of the places that changed me and made me a better person. So, as much as I might be missing home right now, I bet I miss Ecuador just as much in the following year. Home isn’t really a certain country or address; it’s just the place where people love you and care about you. To people in all my different homes, I love you dearly and miss you like crazy. Can’t wait to return to all of you and tell you about my amazing days on the Equator.

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Vamos a La Playa

It’s been about a week since I last posted, and I’m fairly certain it would be impossible to recount everything that happened in the past 7 days … but I’ll give it a try because I’ve got to share one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever experienced.

This past week – during the long weekend for Carnaval celebrations – my BCA group made its way to the Galapagos Islands. Yes, I was blessed to walk along the same gorgeous beaches and breathtaking volcanic formations that made Darwin start a little hypothesis about the origin of man. The entire trip was one amazing landscape after another. From the back of a few small speedboats, my group and I observed penguins, sea lions, iguanas, giant sea turtles, and even a few of those infamous finches.

The days were long and extremely busy, but time flew by as we filled our days with exciting activities and tours. Here are a few highlights: snorkeling off the coast of Isabela Island, swimming with sea lions, hiking the Sierra Negra volcano (this included a 5-hour hike in a rainstorm, but was 100% worth it), cliff jumping on Santa Cruz Island (the bruises that resulted from the water impact weren’t too great, but it’s quite a memory), exploring lava tunnels, observing Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat, walking among thousands of iguanas at the nesting beach, celebrating Carnaval with locals until absurd hours of the night, watching the sunset from a quiet beach behind our hostel, cheering on the local horse races, and of course lots of seafood dinners and quests in search of ice cream.

Despite all the once-in-a-lifetime activities, I think that my favorite part of the trip was actually the peaceful time spent getting to know the local people of the Galapagos. Due to the program’s focus on sustainability, local development, and indigenous rights, we always try to focus our spending on local initiatives owned by long-term residents of the places we visit. This trip was no exception, and our stay on Isabela Island was an important decision in determining how we viewed tourism and development on the islands.

Although the island of Santa Cruz is quickly becoming a globalized tourist hub filled with pizza places, gift shops, and English-speaking tour guides, the island of Isabela is still relatively untouched and remains under the traditions and customs of its small 2000-person population. Our two guides, Julio and Maximo, had lived on the island their entire lives, and they spoke only in Spanish to our group. We stayed in a tiny hostel operated by a lovely woman who basically added onto her house to create the lodging place, and all of our meals were prepared by one very kind family who lived a few houses down from the hostel. We got the real picture of the Galapagos – a picture of a community struggling to find the balance between the profit-earning industry of tourism and the preservation of local wildlife and culture.

There are few places on Earth with as much beauty and mystery as the Galapagos, and the unique experience to live among its people for a week will undoubtedly remain one of the greatest privileges of my life. Yes, the beaches are beautiful and you must see the turtles, but the hidden gems of the islands are truly its people and its traditions.

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La Finca

Ecuadorian farmhouse

My home for the weekend.

This past week has been beyond busy as I attempt to catch up after a weekend away, so I apologize for my tardy update on the weekend adventures. First, I just have to say that the entire experience was absolutely wonderful. On Thursday evening, at the prime hour of 11 p.m., we began our journey to the coast of Ecuador.

About 7 hours (and one very rough sleeping experience) later, we arrived in the town of Guaranda and took one additional 30-minute bus ride into a mountainous region scattered with farms, tiny homes, and some of the most gorgeous rivers I have ever seen.

At this point, I thought the overnight bus ride was the main transportation challenge of the trip…of course, I was wrong. The true challenge was actually the river that separated the main road and our farm destination. The current was far too strong and the water was way too deep to wade or swim across, and the only bridge in sight was a jumble of skinny branches haphazardly strung together with rope. One side had a narrow handrail and the other, well, opened up to the river below. One by one, we cautiously crossed the bridge while simultaneously praying to survive. Despite the instability of this structure, the lovely house that waited on the other side – complete with two hammocks, fresh breakfast, and friendly faces – was definitely worth the bridge experience.

In the truck, ready for the farm tour

In the truck, ready for the farm tour.

My two friends and I spent the next three days living on the farm, and the list of new experiences is truly too much to describe here. Our days were filled with agriculture lessons (everything from how to plant yucca to how to correctly harvest cacao seeds), farm chores (yep, we milked the cows and fed the pigs), and lazy moments of relaxation in the hammocks…not exactly a bad life. We traveled to the market in town via “chiva,” a large truck with rows of seating on the bottom and a top rack for produce and some unlucky passengers. As the naïve Americans, we thought a ride on the top of the truck sounded the most adventurous. After 30 minutes of unbelievable wind, cold rain, and unsettling mountain road curves, we concluded that the experience was memorable but probably did not need to be repeated in the near future.

Carnaval celebration in Ecuador

Carnaval celebration.

We also made a surprise stop at a local Carnaval celebration, the centerpiece of holidays here in Ecuador. Although it technically only lasts one week in mid-February, the entire month is dedicated to Carnaval festivities and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join in on a local family’s lively fiesta. From awkward dance lessons to delicious tamales, we truly had the full experience. The music was loud, the conversation was fast, and the moonshine was awful…all in all, it was an unforgettable evening of fun with some of the most welcoming hosts you will ever encounter.

When it came time to start the bus ride back to Quito on Sunday morning, we were all sad to go and even more upset to face the 7 hours of travel. The scenery on the way back, however, was absolutely stunning and definitely well worth the hours spent on the winding roads. I could not have asked for a better weekend getaway, and I’m looking forward to what this weekend will have to offer. I’ll be sure to update next week before our next exciting trip…Galapagos in only one more week!

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Rey de Burger

Jardin de Quindes

Jardin de Quindes.

Well. I can honestly say that tonight may rank as the new #1 most interesting family dinner…I just never know what to expect for my meals here. Tonight, my host mom and brother entered the house at approximately 7:30 p.m. to inform me that we were going to go out for dinner tonight – something that has not occurred since I moved in.

As we all loaded into the car, my brother talked incessantly about the great dinner we were about to experience. He excitedly told me that we were going to a fantastic burger place (an idea that sounded amazing and wonderfully American) and continued to drive toward the center of the city where most of the large malls and shopping centers can be found. We pulled into one of the main parking areas, and he led me toward our destination: Burger King. Yes, Burger King. I could barely constrain the laughter as he told me about these incredible items known as Whoppers, but I have to admit that the taste of fast food was a welcome change from weeks of rice and fruit.

After dinner, my family took me on a walk around the city’s main park, Parque Carolina (typical Ecuadorian schedule…they told me it would be a short trip to grab dinner to go. We left at 7:30 and I returned home from our park adventure at 10:30). Despite a looming pile of class reading back at home, I couldn’t turn down an offer to explore the park. I actually went running with a few friends from the BCA program in the same area last Sunday, and immediately decided it was my favorite place in the city. Each weekend, the park is filled with locals and offers some of the best people watching opportunities available.

Here’s a brief list of some of the things you might see in Carolina on any given Sunday afternoon: every type of sports game imaginable (EcuaVolley, soccer, basketball, you name it), dirt bike tracks, carnival rides, infinite food options (everything from fresh fruit and snow cones to grilled steaks and hot dogs), art displays, running paths, dance performances (yes, there was a flash mob performing last Sunday during my visit), clown acts, skate parks, paddle boats, and even fresh supplies of cotton candy. It’s quite an experience, and it seems the whole city is there to witness it each weekend.

Now, the park was not nearly as active on this Tuesday evening, but it was still a great place to relax after dinner. My family and I wandered around the walking paths and then explored the Jardin de Quindes (Garden of Hummingbirds). Despite its deceptive name, this location is not a garden but rather a spectacular art exhibit. Giant statues of hummingbirds (a bird that appears in several traditional Ecuadorian stories) line the front of the park, and each one is painted by a different local artist. The sculptures are beautifully decorated, and it creates a very unique entrance to the park.

After a bit more walking, we finally returned to the car to pick up my host sister from her night class at the university and (at long last) made it back home. Sort of gives a new meaning to the idea of “fast” food, right? My mom promised to take me to the other famous American restaurant sometime soon, so I’m sure I’ll have more updates to come. She claims it is her personal favorite…KFC.

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Community

Ecuadorian children

Children of Para Sus Niños.

As you can probably guess based on the general theme of my posts, this week has brought even more unexpected adventures and challenges. The results, though, have been wonderful as usual. This past week, I began volunteering at two different locations in Ecuador, both of which offer a completely different type of learning experience and a great opportunity to serve alongside some truly talented and compassionate people.

On Friday morning, I made my way to Para Sus Niños, a small orphanage operated by an American couple who came to Ecuador as missionaries. The trip to Carcelen (where the orphanage is located) required two buses, a taxi ride, and some walking…needless to say, I got lost a few times (typical) and was a bit exhausted by the time I actually arrived at the front gates.

A security guard at the entrance asked me for my volunteer info, signed me in, and then pointed toward a tiny house. I’m pretty sure he said something about babies, but at that point my Spanish brain was beyond functioning. When I opened the door to the main room, I immediately knew what he was talking about: I had been assigned to the infant care area. Ten children, all under the age of 6 months, were crying and demanding lunch as I tried to figure out where exactly I was supposed to go for this whole ordeal. I was so impressed with the women working in the house (all of whom are referred to as “tia,” or aunt). What could have been complete chaos was instead an organized routine in which each baby was fed, held, and then settled down for a nap.

The entire experience was humbling for me. I played with one of the baby boys for a while while some of the older women prepared bottles of formula and tiny bowls of soup. As an only child, I have to admit that I don’t exactly have a ton of sibling experience or much expertise when it comes to small kids, so the lunch process was a bit rocky at first. Luckily, my little friend seemed to be hungry and quite content to just stare at me as he gobbled down his food. When tears looked at all possible, I quickly learned that the chance to play with my bracelets was an instant crowd pleaser. Who knew those things could be so important?

My favorite part of my time at the orphanage, though, was the faith shown in every intricate detail of the day. The name Para Sus Niños (For His Children) refers to the way God cares for, loves, and provides for His children in this world. The entire staff at the orphanage cares for these kids because they believe each child is uniquely and wonderfully made by God, and this shows in the way things are done. Before each meal and before nap time, the “tias” and volunteers pray over each baby – to bless them, care for them, and ask that they would grow up to love their creator and understand His love for them. I couldn’t ask for a better place to spend my Friday afternoon.

If you’d like to check out the organization, here’s a quick link to their website: www.forhischildren-ecuador.org. They have an amazing child sponsorship program, and I would highly encourage you to check it out if you have the financial ability to do such a thing. So many times I feel like I turn down the opportunity to donate to various groups because I never really know where the money will go, how it will be used, etc. I can tell you that I’ve seen this place for myself, and it is worthy of every cent.

I’m sorry for the length of this post, but I’d really like to share a bit about the other place where I will be volunteering this semester. This Monday, I had my first day of service at Fundacion AM-EN, an equestrian stable that specializes in equine therapy for children with Down’s Syndrome and other types of special needs. This place is incredible, but of course, the journey to actually make it to the barn was quite the trip. I awoke at 5:15 a.m. last Monday in order to make it to the first bus stop by 6 a.m., took a bus to the central Rio Coca station, caught another bus to Cumbaya Valley, and then took an additional bus ride down to Tumbaco – about 30 minutes past my university.

I had received instructions from the foundation’s director to get off the bus at one of the main gas stations in Tumbaco, where someone would be waiting to drive me to the stable. Per usual, the bus did not stop at this gas station so I had a bit of an unexpected hike back to the correct intersection, but I managed to make it to the gas station by 7:40. By 7:55, I was kind of nervous that I had missed my shuttle service at 7:45, so I began to ask questions around the gas station. One helpful lady informed me that I was one street away from the pick up location, so I made my way over to the meeting place.

Five minutes later, an Ecuadorian man in a small jeep pulled up in his car filled with mothers and their children ready for horseback riding lessons. I was told to jump in the back, and we were off. After another 15 minutes down a dirt road (at this point I had no idea where I was…I’m starting to get used to that feeling), we finally arrived at the stable.

Horse stables at Fundacion AM-EN, Ecuador

The stables at Fundacion AM-EN.

The location is beyond beautiful – the barn is set in the bottom of a deep valley next to a river surrounded by trees, vines, and some type of pretty red flowers. I wandered around for a minute or two and then finally asked what exactly I was supposed to be doing. The main man in charge of the horses asked me if I had any experience working with horses. I confidently assured him that I knew what I was doing, and then stared blankly at him when he handed me two ropes and pointed towards the river. Apparently, there were horses down there and it was my job to figure out how to get them.

After a few minutes of climbing down into the water, I discovered my targets, wrapped the ropes around them, and led them to the barn. At this point, I began to meet some of the other volunteers – two girls from Sweden, two girls from Germany, and a younger man from the Western coast of Ecuador. Needless to say, we are quite a diverse group and the conversation is always interesting (and a bit confusing…the Spanish language combined with European accents and an American accent can get pretty jumbled). The other men that work with the horses immediately demanded to check out my cowboy boots and had about a thousand questions about life in Texas – known here as the land of Walker, Texas Ranger. Seriously, everyone loves that show. My family would fit right in.

When the horses were ready to go, taxis and a school bus began to arrive with children for the therapy program. From 8:30 until 11:30, we worked with about 30 kids, and it was an absolute blast. It’s amazing to see how they interact with the horses, and their parents are so incredibly grateful to watch their son or daughter participate in such a unique activity. The horses are all very quiet and calm, so they do a great job of taking care of their little riders. Although, the horse I was leading did have a certain affinity for biting my leg…I was later told that they gave me that horse to see if I was telling the truth about working with horses in the past. Great.

Once all the kids were on their way back home, the rest of the volunteers and I unsaddled the horses, cleaned out the stalls, and fed the animals. In case you are curious, when an Ecuadorian tells you to get the corn to feed the horses, they are not referring to a bag of horse feed or corn kernels; they literally mean the 100-pound bundle of corn stalks that are stacked somewhere behind the barn. And the horses will probably be roaming about in the arena, so be prepared to be attacked as you drag the corn stalks through the barn. I learn so many new things here every day.

If you would like to check out this organization, here’s a link to their website as well (you can choose to change the page to English in the top left corner): www.fundacion-amen.org.

Well, thanks for taking the time to read all the way through this…I hope it gives you a better idea of how I spend my days here in Ecuador, and I am excited to keep learning at both Para Sus Ninos and Fundacion AM-EN.

Hasta Luego!

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Week 3

It’s slightly unbelievable that I have already been in Ecuador for three weeks. Sometimes it feels like a matter of hours, and other times I feel like I’ve lived here forever, so my grasp of time is not exactly accurate these days. I can happily report, though, that this week has been the best one yet. Last weekend was our first opportunity to really spend some quality time in the city with our host families, and the adventures never really seem to end.

On Saturday, my family took me on quite a trip. Before I get into the details, it is important to remember that things operate on Ecua Time here – aka, no one is in a hurry and deadlines mean basically nothing. So, when my madre told me to be ready to go on a quick road trip to a neighboring community at 9:30 on Saturday morning, I made sure to be downstairs ready for breakfast at 9 AM. The rest of the family made their way to the kitchen around 10 and then instructed me to wait 15 minutes while they ran a quick errand. At 1:15 PM, they returned to pick me up and acted as if everything was right on schedule.

If you have any idea of my love for scheduling and planners, you know that this caused a slight anxiety attack for me … I was expecting to meet a friend for a church service later that afternoon and hoped the trip wasn’t going to make me too late. Instead of my expected 20-minute car trip, I instead began an hourlong drive to Guayllabamba and Cayambe, lovely little towns hidden away in some of the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen.

The family took me to lunch at a small diner where I got to try some local Ecuadorian specialties – empanadas de morocho, lots of aji (hot sauce), parrillada (kind of like bbq chicken), roasted corn, and platanos (similar to bananas). The food was wonderful and the conversation was lively as always. After lunch we stopped in the town center of Cayambe for bizcocho – a famous type of pastry that is usually accompanied by coffee or hot chocolate. Now, by this time I was already about 4 hours behind my original schedule but was so happy with the incredible scenery and food that I honestly couldn’t complain too much. I even made it to the 7 o’clock church service with about 4 minutes to spare. Perfect.

The church service itself was quite an experience as well. I went with one of my friends from BCA to her host family’s iglesia, an evangelical church that appeared pretty similar to the Pentecostal tradition in the States. The Spanish was rapid, emotions were high, and people were passionate. I probably only understood about 40% of the music and sermon, but it was such an encouraging and amazing experience to worship in another language. I am always reminded of God’s infinite sovereignty when I am able to see people from a completely different culture praise Him in their own language. It’s humbling and beautiful.

That evening, I got to spend some time in fellowship with my friend and her host family, and it was exactly what my heart was craving. It’s so easy to take Christian community for granted at home, and it is a truly moving experience to feel the undeniable need to speak about God and pray to Him with other believers (regardless of language barriers and culture disparities).

On Sunday morning I returned to the same church for another service and then had lunch with one of the families from the congregation … Once again, I was blown away by their hospitality and kindness. They even attempted to teach me a few things in the kitchen. Of course, I failed miserably at just about every task I was given, but I’m learning. And they are wonderfully patient.

Sunday evening brought another unexpected experience, and this one may be the highlight of the weekend. One of the girls in my study abroad program celebrated her birthday last weekend, and her host mom decided to have a small gathering at her home for cake and coffee to honor my friend’s birthday. When I arrived at the apartment, I expected a few members of the host family and maybe a few pastry items for the big event. I should have known better …. Ecuadorians are not into understatements and that simply would not be sufficient for any celebration.

Instead, I found a room full of Ecuadorians and massive amounts of fresh bread, appetizers, pastries, coffee, hot chocolate, and more. The host family was so friendly, and I learned a great amount simply by listening to them tell stories about their lives and their country. What I thought would be a 30-minute dessert turned into hours of conversation and celebration ….D o you see why I love this place so much?

I realize this post is already excessively long, but I have to mention a few things about my school week. To get straight to the point, I absolutely love my university. USFQ is not only a beautiful campus – sometimes I feel like I’m on vacation on some tropical island instead of attending classes – but the courses have far surpassed anything I could have imagined.

My three political science courses (politics of environmental change, theories of economic development, and corruption as an international phenomenon) are all so interesting, and class discussion never ceases to amaze me. The student population is not only informed about Ecuadorian politics, but most know an impressive amount about news in the United States, Europe, and all around the world. My classmates come from all around the globe, and it is common for me to hear Spanish, English, German, French, and Swedish throughout one class period. It amazes me every day, and I find myself more and more excited to attend class as the semester progresses. Yep, definitely sounding like a nerd. But it really is incredible.

Tomorrow I begin volunteering at an orphanage here in Quito … I am beyond excited for this opportunity and I am sure I will have more to share about that experience after tomorrow. This weekend I will be staying in Quito to see some of the city’s attractions – hoping to explore Pichincha, the nearby volcano, and maybe tour some more of the historic center. More pictures and updates to come, I’m sure. Until then, have a great friday…hasta luego!

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My education

Making friends with llamas

Last semester, I filled out never ending piles of paperwork – from frustrating visa applications and international travel documents to personal goal statements and academic profiles – in preparation for a semester in Latin America. I had a general idea of what to expect, and I felt fairly confident that certain aspects of my journey would provide expected challenges as well as great opportunities for personal growth. I am quickly learning, however, that my expectations are basically useless here.

I do not mean that in a negative way, for in most areas of life my expectations have been far surpassed by the reality of Ecuador. I expected beautiful landscapes … This past weekend, I swam beneath a breathtaking waterfall and hiked along the ridge of a volcanic lake. I expected to improve my Spanish ability … My vocabulary is expanding more rapidly than I can even handle at the moment. I expected to meet new people with new perspectives … Each day I seem to encounter individuals with surreal life experiences and enthralling ideologies. In a few less words, this experience has been everything I hoped it would be and more.

I do mean to say, however, that with such opportunities to learn and grow also come some unexpected twists and turns. First, I did not expect to encounter such levels of personal apprehension. I would like to think of myself as the kind of young, adventurous individual who fears no evil and adapts swiftly to other cultures of the world. As nice as that may sound, it simply isn’t true.

At the "cascada"

There are moments in my daily routine when I must admit … I get a little nervous. Heck, simply stepping onto one of the buses here in Quito is a risky move. From an intimidating taxi system to the ever-present threat of pickpockets, I find myself constantly more alert and skeptical of those around me. At first, I felt guilt about this. How could I be so judgmental? Or prejudiced? The reality of the situation, though, is that these dangers are real and very much deserve my attention.

Quito is far from being a violent city, but my daily travel requires that I let go of some of my more idealistic (and sometimes naive) notions of the world around me. 99.9% of the people I passed on the street today are wonderful, very hospitable individuals who have interesting stories and experiences similar to my own. The remaining small percentage are not necessarily “bad” people either, but I have to keep in mind that this country is home to many economic troubles and families who have very little. When this kind of need exists, economic crime naturally follows.

So, what’s the point of this reflection? I promise, I’m not trying to give my mom a heart attack by explaining the various dangers in my new home. For the most part, my life here is relatively safe and I am becoming more and more confident each day. The point of this idea, however, is that my expectation of “education” in Ecuador is quite different than my reality. And I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

I am not simply learning a language or learning about political events … I’m learning how to live in a world that is completely different from my own. Sometimes, that means learning to carry only small amounts of cash, figuring out how to judge the legitimacy of a taxi, knowing which areas are safe and which are more risky, etc. But most of the time, it means learning to really look at the lifestyles around me, to see the effects of globalization, development, and international affairs being played out on the street right before my eyes.

I am taking courses on economic development models, political corruption, and climate change – these are not simply theories or discussion topics in a classroom. They are real, pressing concerns for a nation that is trying to compete in a demanding world market while also maintaining its identity as a Latin American country with a rich indigenous past.

Today, I noticed one of my classmates reading a book on socialism in Latin America. I asked her what class required this reading. She stared at me and politely informed me that this was for her own personal enrichment. You know, the whole “don’t let school get in the way of your education” kind of ideology. I was impressed and honestly somewhat convicted. At times, I feel as though I simply learn how to work the education system rather than actually learning how to think and change. I know how to take exams and write lengthy term papers, but I rarely know how to apply my newfound knowledge to a world in desperate need of creative solutions and forward-thinking individuals.

So, this is my education in Ecuador. I’m learning how to learn. And hopefully, I’m learning how to change. There is much to be said for security and safety, but I believe this semester is my chance to push myself into a different type of environment in which the desire to grow and learn is so great that little fears of uncertainty, failure, or discomfort simply cannot deter my efforts.

To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound … the virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it.  – Josef Pieper

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La Vida Ecua

View of the city

After a couple days of orientation and a few exciting adventures (most of which involve some sort of ridiculous encounter on the bus or some embarrassing misuse of a Spanish vocab word), I can happily report that I am loving every minute of life here in Ecuador.

On Sunday afternoon I moved in with my host family for the semester, and they are such a welcoming and loving group of people. The city itself is absolutely beautiful, and I have met some truly amazing individuals who all seem eager to share their culture and their country.

Now, there are definitely some challenging times as well, but God has been so faithful to answer prayers for peace and strength. New friends in the BCA abroad program, a caring host family, and letters from home have made all the difference in this transition, and I feel as though I’m already learning a great amount, not only about my new surroundings but also about life in general here in Quito.

It’s somewhat difficult to condense all the new experiences from this week into a coherent message, so I’m just going to share my most important lesson of the trip thus far: Slow Down. There is no other experience that can quickly delay one’s scheduled plan quite like the bus system here in Quito, and I am quickly learning that prompt arrivals and tight schedules simply aren’t part of the Ecuadorian lifestyle.

The university I'll be attending

On my first day at the university orientation, I began the somewhat confusing task of finding my way from the neighborhood in which my host family lives to “La Universidad San Francisco.” The trip begins with a relatively short walk down a few blocks to the bus station where the blue bus line (theoretically) stops every 15 minutes. After 40 minutes at the stop, the bus finally appeared to take me on the 25-minute journey to the Rio Coca bus terminal. Once at this main terminal, I switch to a different bus route and complete the 20-minute drive to Cumbaya Valley and finally make a quick walk to the university. For someone who is used to hitting snooze on the alarm about 4 times and then finally rushing across SMU’s campus for a grand total of 4 minutes before I reach class, this is a very different morning routine.

At first, I found the whole thing to be a bit frustrating and inconvenient. After a couple days on the bus system, however, I am extremely grateful for this forced change in my daily routine. Instead of hurrying and stressing throughout the morning, I have time to wake up, clean my room, eat breakfast with my family, chat about their plans for the day, take a walk past the park to the bus, and then begin the movement toward school. The long bus ride is not a hassle but rather a great opportunity to slow down, pray quietly, collect my thoughts, read my Bible, and prepare for the day.

My first lunch in Quito

I am trying to take full advantage of this slower, more purposeful approach to time, and so far the results are wonderful. Whether it means more time to just sit and read or more opportunities to meet neighbors and speak with new friends, the emphasis on enjoying the present time instead of preparing for the future is a great lesson in the importance of perspective. Yes, the bus may be 40 minutes late, but that just means you get 40 more minutes to talk to the street vendor on the corner and to explore the local community.

No one really expects you to be on time here, and it is assumed that obstacles will occur. Timeliness is far from a bad character trait, but I think these few months of relaxed schedules may be a great thing for me. I love my calendars, my organizer, and my four-year plan, but I hope to use this semester as an opportunity to put aside all those personal strategies and see just what God has in store for my life without all my worrying and fretting. Maybe a little less planning for tomorrow means a little more enjoyment today.

“He who fritters away the early morning, its opportunity and freshness, in other pursuits than seeking God will make poor headway seeking Him the rest of the day. If God is not first in our thoughts and efforts in the morning, He will be in the last place the remainder of the day.”  - E.M. Bounds

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